Each day, all summer, I’d set out in my nine-and-half-foot, lime-green tub of a boat called, incongruously, Typhoon. Once past the harbor breakwater, I was at sea. I steered my bow through the swells toward the endless horizon.
I’d spend the day sailing out of sight of land, luxuriating in the feel of wind, sail, and boat; the gurgle of the bow wave, the gentle rocking motion. I’d while away countless hours imagining brave voyages and high adventures to all the distant ports that lay beyond. My possibilities seemed as boundless and infinite as the sea itself. “When I grow up I’ll . . . .” Thoughts of my future soothed me like a mother’s lullaby.
I was 9 years old, all alone, and felt completely safe.
That was then. Now I’m here on this eight-day Buddhist retreat doing walking meditation. But I’m lost in childhood reverie rather than mindfully staying present to the sensation of each single step. Supposedly, I’ve been training my brain to obey the simple teachings: be in the moment, the future is now, the past is gone, breath by breath, just this—nothing next. I’m not very good at it, and it’s the last day. But what I know is that this stab of discouragement isn’t the real low down truth, it’s just another passing moment; a passing cloud obscuring the moon, the rustle of wind through the leaves. I smile. I love all the Buddhists clichés. Bumper sticker wisdom works for me.
I’ve been working hard on integrating Buddhist teachings and meditation practice into my life for six years now. I have a luminescent teacher named Narayan, a sangha of experienced fellow practitioners, a daily practice, and have been on several retreats. I’ve been committed to the path, as they say.
None of my spiritual practice prepared for my stage IV non-Hodgkins lymphoma that turned my life upside down two years ago. I was extremely sick and given a small chance to survive.
During the first year and half with cancer, I was assaulted by chemo, suspicious symptoms, and endless rounds of MRIs and PET scans. I tried to act brave and strong. Oddly enough, in the first weeks, I achieved my Buddhist ideal of living moment by moment with equanimity, acceptance, and gratitude. I spoke easily about the transformational power of illness, the gift of cancer. I thought I’d become enlightened. After all, Buddhism teaches that our sense of self is an illusion, and that nothing exists except the sensations of experience–that everything is impermanent and the key to happiness is simply a matter of accepting life as it is without trying to avoid pain or hold on to well-being. I thought I’d arrived. But in reality, in my first months of confronting the cancer, I was out of my mind, quite dissociative. Buddhism doesn’t mean being detached, uncaring, disengaged.
Somehow during my illness, I stopped caring about my life. Not about the people I love—my wife, my sons, my friends, my clients. I just stopped caring about me. And like most trauma survivors, I didn’t actually go through the experience of battling the cancer. I was a spectator—a kind of dead man walking. Inwardly, I said good-bye to my comforting vision of a bright tomorrow. Mine was just the opposite of Lance Armstrong’s attitude: “I’m going to beat this thing!” I practiced surrender and prepared, as best I could, to die.
But I didn’t.
Here I am—remarkably healthy (knock on wood), a walking miracle, and an emotional mess. In the nine months since I completed chemo and stopped having any kinds of symptoms, I’ve been a quivering mass of heart palpitations, jangled nerves, PTSD flashbacks, and deadly despair. People tell me how great I look, how good I sound. I want to punch their lights out.
I came to this retreat out of desperation. I’m here to learn how to live again, because I might be around for another 30 years. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?! All my life, I’ve been the boy in the boat, soothing myself by making up redeeming possibilities to escape the distresses of my immediate present. With the illness, I surrendered the idea of a comforting tomorrow entirely. Now I can’t seem to grasp even the idea of going on, although I appear to be a pretty healthy 62-year-old. I can’t seem to reclaim the normal person’s delusion that we own our lives and have a future. It’s unimaginable. I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t care about anything. Nothing excites me. I’m as clueless as a 13-year-old, but with the added insult of having a shrinking, not growing, body.
So I’m here, just resting in the breath, trying to be present to the present. I came because I figured that before I can embrace the possibility of a real future and reclaim the joy of having hopes and dreams, I’d better find a way of living in the here and now, with all the uncertainties, fears, and feelings that I’ve either been denying or have found to be overwhelming. This is truly starting with the “one day at a time” mantra and holding on to it like it’s a life preserver.
All one does on retreat is practice experiencing the present moment breath by breath while standing, sitting, walking, working, eating, and sleeping with a group of other breathers. It’s incredibly hard. The mind is so out of control—beset by fears and fantasies, reliving the past, projecting onto others, making up dreams, in constant, restless motion. Just being isn’t natural to the human mind. That’s the blessing and the curse that makes me different from my cat.
Somewhere in the middle of the retreat, though, I stumbled into the miracle of the moment. I was in the meditation hall with a hundred other people on cushions. There was complete silence, except for the occasional cough, throat clearing, stomach gurgling, and car passing. I was deep in Samadhi concentration, paying full attention to the experience of the breath filling my lungs and then emptying out of them. I was free of thoughts, floating weightlessly like a space walker. Suddenly I felt a tickle on my forearm. Of course, I tried to keep my concentration and not be distracted by whatever creature was crawling up my arm. But I was no longer just breathing—I’d shifted to trying not to pay attention to the tickle, and then I suddenly remembered that it was okay in Vipassana practice to simply let go of the breath and bring my full awareness to whatever was happening. I opened my eyes and saw that crawling up my arm was a round, speckled, orange ball. It was a ladybug; a little dot of life making its way from somewhere to somewhere, and at that moment, my arm was its path.
I felt a flush of understanding, and experienced on almost a cellular level that nothing really separated me from the ladybug. I, too, am nothing but a dot of life, making my way from somewhere to somewhere, I thought. I simultaneously experienced the feeling of being utterly insignificant and of being part of the breath of the infinite universe. It was like encountering God.
Later that day, my back went into a bad spasm, and my transcendent experience faded into a feeling that it had been nothing much more than a good trip. Almost everyone has some version of that flash in the pan enlightenment experience on a long retreat. When the eager beavers report these moments in the processing groups, the old hands greet it with bemused and gentle smiles.
So today, I go home. What have I learned? Nothing new. It’s all 2,500-year-old wisdom. But at least for these eight days, I just was. And despite the back spasm, I’ve reclaimed a vision of my future. The retreat worked. I feel healthy and renewed. I feel excited about building a new life.
I’ll go home and center my life around my Buddhist practice. I’ll see fewer clients and do fewer workshops. I’ll meditate three times a day. I’ll take long walks and cherish the turn of each season. I’ll forgo sleeping pills, booze, and comfort food. I’ll go to the gym, lose weight, and get regular massages. Maybe I’ll train to become a Buddhist teacher. Maybe I’ll write about this enlightenment stuff in a fresh, meaningful way. I’ll bow to the miracle of each life I encounter and each moment I live. I can’t wait!
Four Weeks Later
It’s been a month since the retreat. I’ve been working like a dog, seeing clients who are constantly in crisis. As I said harshly to a friend, “It’s like spending my days sucking on the tailpipe of humanity.” Unexpected family visits entailed much drinking and eating out. Retreat promises have popped like a child’s beautiful bubbles.
I meditate sporadically. Feel waves of the same anxiety and depression. Even if I survive cancer, my tawdry fantasy of a fine future that soothes the painful present has been exposed. My future, if I’m lucky, will be getting old and sick, and then dying. The horizon has shrunk, and will shrink more. I suspect the answer for life’s anxieties isn’t going to be looking toward tomorrow anymore. It won’t be finding comfort in making more New Year’s resolutions. Even my Buddhists ambitions to lead a more balanced and spiritual life seem like the same old game cloaked in a monk’s robe.
I remember my roommate from one of my chemo weekends. He looked really mean, like the infamous South Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. He had bad colon cancer, with metastasis in the liver. This was his third recurrence. He was a goner. He was sullen and wary, like a snake coiled and ready to strike. He snapped at the nurses, who tiptoed around him and spoke to him in anxious whispers.
I ran into him later in the waiting room, when we were both sitting there in our absurd hospital johnnies and attached to our IV poles, awaiting PET scans. Rage seemed to radiate from him.
I got called in first and tried to say as pleasantly as I could, “See you up in the room. Have a good day.”
He looked up at me and scowled, a mix of grimace and smile. Then he said in a gravelly growl, “Any day above ground’s a good day.”
Maybe life really is that simple. Maybe today can be embraced as a good day no matter how foul my mood or what the future holds. Just this-nothing next.
I think of that boy in his little boat. Maybe it wasn’t the big dreams of faraway lands and high-seas adventure that seemed to make everything wonderful after all. Maybe it was simply the feel of wind, sail, and boat; the gurgle of the bow wave, the gentle rocking motion.
David Treadway, PhD, is a therapist and trainer of 40 years. His latest book is Treating Couples Well: A Practical Guide to Collaborative Couple Therapy. He’s also the author of Home Before Dark: A Family Portrait of Cancer and three other books.